As the United Nations debates Eritrea’s troubled human rights record, an Australian mining company has taken the extraordinary step of appearing with the Eritrean regime to help it defend its actions.
Western Australian Danakali Resources runs a potash mine in partnership with the Eritrea government. Its Chairman, Seamus Cornelius, spoke at the event “Demystifying Eritrea: The Ground Reality, Mining and Human Rights”, along with a representative from Canadian miner Nevsun Resources.
Eritrea’s human rights record has come under constant criticism at the UN, with a 2016 Inquiry finding the regime responsible for “widespread and systematic crimes against humanity”.
Keren Adams, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said given Eritrea’s notoriety, it was deeply concerning that an Australian company would seek to promote its record in this way.
“Eritrea’s human rights record has come under consistent criticism at the United Nations. Eritrea is known as the “North Korea” of Africa. An estimated 5,000 refugees flee the country’s repressive policies every month. In these circumstances, for an Australian company to participate in a staged public relations exercise for the Eritrean Government is staggering.”
Eritrea is particularly notorious for its widespread use of forced labour through its indefinite military conscription program. In 2014, a lawsuit was brought in Canada against Nevsun by three Eritrean refugees who allege they were forced to work in slave-like conditions at Nevsun’s Bisha mine.
Danakali denies that it has ever relied on forced labour, yet when pressed as to its control over labour standards at the project, Mr Cornelius was unable to rule out that it could be an issue in future, saying, “I can’t guarantee it will never happen”. Mr Cornelius also admitted that the company had not conducted any form of human rights risk assessment on the project.
Ms Adams said that irrespective of whether Danakali was directly profiting from forced labour, the company’s partnership with the Eritrean government and its failure to ask questions about the consequences of that relationship risked making it complicit in the regime’s human rights abuses.
“It is unacceptable that an Australian company will not guarantee that people won’t be forced into labour to increase their profits. Businesses have an obligation to avoid contributing to human rights violations both in their own activities and through their relationships,” said Ms Adams.
“Danakali’s mine is projected to make a fortune for the Eritrean regime, and before it has even got off the ground, the company is already helping to whitewash the regime’s human rights record. I’d say they’re already in pretty deep.”
Ms Adams said the case also raised questions as to whether the Australian Government was doing enough to monitor companies’ overseas operations.
“Under the Government’s proposed modern slavery legislation, Australian companies will be required to report on what they are doing about forced labour in their operations, but there is no requirement that they seriously evaluate the risks and no penalties for non-compliance. Unless that changes, it’s hard to see how the legislation will help establish effective oversight over companies operating in places like Eritrea,” said Ms Adams.
At the Human Rights Council’s session on Eritrea, the Australian Government told the UN that it was “disturbed” by the findings of the “arbitrary use and open-ended duration of military service” in Eritrea.
Australia was elected for a three-year term on the Council in October last year. This Council session runs until 23 March. The Human Rights Law Centre will attend every day of the Council session and provide regular updates on the Australian Government’s actions.
For interviews or further information please call:
Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519
Photo credit: EU/ECHO/Malini Morzaria